The First Origenist Controversy – 394

Heresy & Excommunication

We took our leave of the year 393 in the last post and are now entering the year 394. Bishops Epiphanius and John are now accusing one another of heresy and Epiphanius is seeking John’s downfall. In this Epiphanius is supported by one of John’s priests: Jerome. Bishop John does not take kindly to Jerome’s changing sides. To make matters worse Epiphanius, unwisely if not uncanonically,  ordains Jerome’s brother to the sacred order of the priesthood without John’s knowledge to serve as a Priest in John’s jurisdiction. Epiphanius writes a self-justificatory letter to John but John is terribly offended at the un-canonical ordination and the letter only serves to deepen the conflict. Jerome contributes to the dispute by translating a piece of propaganda by Epiphanius into Latin where Bishop John is exposed as a heretic and is “called to penitence” (Epistle 57, 2). John responds by excommunicating Jerome and by seeking his banishment from Bethlehem. The Praetorian Prefect is persuaded (by John) that Bethlehem is better off without Jerome and his banishment is announced in a rescript.  Jerome, having been the subject of bans before, decides this time things are going to be different and digs in his heels. He will not, again, be exiled.

We have now come to the year 395 and the First Origenist Controversy is well underway of becoming a fact. Jerome is not, as it turns out, evicted and banned because the Praetorian Prefect is murdered before the rescript he published calling for Jerome’s banishment can be acted upon.

The Panarion

We have seen earlier that the anti-Origenist campaign seems to start with Epiphanius the Bishop of Salamis (Cyprus). Epiphanius – for all his defects – is not a disingenuous ant-Origenist. He has real theological difficulties with what he believes to be Origen’s – or at least the Origenist’s – doctrine. He does not seek the ruin of personal enemies, but the repentance and healing of heretics for the greater good of the Body of Christ. His magnum opus the Panarion (Medicine Chest) is intended as a healing salve for the wounds of heresy. In spite of its good intentions the Panarion is not a very reliable source. Many unsubstantiated rumors are repeated as fact throughout this voluminous work. The sixty-fourth chapter begins to deal with Origenism and intends to connect several heresies – Arianism among them – to Origen.

Among the heresies of Origen we find:

  1. subordinationism
  2. not taking Scripture literally enough
  3. pre-existence of non-incarnate souls
  4. the fall from preexistence into “tunics of skin” (bodies)
  5. the salvation of the devil (universal salvation)
  6. denial of the resurrection

Epiphanius wrote the Panarion in the mid 370-ies and expresses his concerns about Origen’s proto-Arianism, but seems mostly concerned about issues of embodiment and allegorical readings of Scripture. In the dispute he began with John of Jerusalem the issues surrounding embodiment take center stage.

Be fruitful and multiply

In the year 394 in a letter to John of Jerusalem, Epiphanius addresses the issues he thinks are at hand: the preexistence of souls and their fall into materiality, the physicality of the resurrection body and the literal reading of the Genesis account of the Creation and Fall. Epiphanius brings up two passages from Genesis to express his concerns:

Then God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of heaven, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Genesis 1, 28.

So then, increase and multiply; and fill the earth and have dominion over it.

Genesis 9, 7

What would become of these divine blessings? God blessed both Adam and Noah with similar words! If souls inhabit bodies as a tomb, did God have to wait for the angels to sin in heaven before the multiplication of humans could take place on earth? The well-intended Bishop fails to understand both Origen and the Origenists in his line of questioning. It is clear that in bringing up these passages it is of the greatest importance to Epiphanius that the Genesis account be understood literally. A literal exegesis perhaps connected to a proper understanding of embodiment, and an allegorical reading could be connected to preexistence and all that follows from it. It seems to me that Epiphanius also misunderstands the practice of allegory as it is used by Origen, Evagrius, and others. But why would Epiphanius bring up these passages of Scripture? He did not use them previously in his Panarion when addressing issues of the body.

Dispute about Asceticism

In his Forms of Devotion, Everett Ferguson, suggests a very plausible answer: in the 390-ies an ascetic dispute had arisen between Jovinian and Jerome. The debate concerned – among other things – the Scriptural texts cited above. Jovinian had argued – based on these passages – that the goodness of “being fruitful and multiplying” had not been undone entirely by human sin. In other words, as Jovinian saw it, God’s blessing had not been wholly destroyed by Adam’s sin. Jerome thought otherwise and we have his Against Jovinian to inform us. Jerome points out to Jovinian that Adam and Eve were in fact virgins in Paradise and that marriage (thus the multiplication and being fruitful) came in only after the fall and that virginity was therefore to be considered the more perfect way of life.

It seems unlikely that Epiphanius, with whom Jerome had been in contact, was unaware of the dispute over asceticism. In citing precisely the Genesis passages Jerome and Jovinian had argued about in an ascetic context he seems to show his awareness of it. After all, the debate about asceticism is very much about the body and it is precisely the body which is central in Epiphanius’s argument against John of Jerusalem. A correct reading of Genesis, is causally related to a correct understanding of embodiment, which in turn leads to a correct understanding and practice of asceticism.

With all this at play we have come to the end of the period 394 – 395 and we must consider the turn of events in 396. Some of the central players in the First Origenist Controversy in Egypt will enter the stage: Isodore and Theophilus of Alexandria his Bishop.

Fr. Gregory Wassen





About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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